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After historic rookie season, young outfielder looking to take big step -- toward 1st base

All Headlines 16:09 March 19, 2018

SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) -- When it comes to hitting in South Korean baseball, Nexen Heroes outfielder Lee Jung-hoo is the apple that didn't fall too far from the tree.

His father, Lee Jong-beom, is a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) legend who was voted the 1993 and 1997 Korean Series MVP and the 1994 regular season MVP. In that 1994 season, the shortstop won the batting title with a .393 average and led the league in steals with 84, which still stands as a single-season record.

In 2017, the junior Lee won something his father never did: the Rookie of the Year award. Lee Jung-hoo set freshman records with 179 hits and 111 runs scored, while batting a robust .342. He also became the first rookie out of high school to play an entire season in his first year.

Nexen Heroes' outfielder Lee Jung-hoo poses for pictures before a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game against the SK Wyverns at SK Happy Dream Park in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on March 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

Still just 19, Lee Jung-hoo is entering his second season hoping to take the next big step -- toward first base, that is.

Lee is firmly entrenched as the leadoff man. He'll be tasked with getting on base and setting the table for some big boppers behind him, including Park Byung-ho, a four-time KBO home run king who has rejoined the Heroes after a brief stint with the Minnesota Twins. In 2014 and 2015, his two previous KBO seasons, Park belted out 52 and 53 home runs, respectively.

The lineup also features hard-hitting shortstop Kim Ha-seong, who has averaged 21 home runs over the past three seasons, and Michael Choice, who launched 17 home runs in just 46 games last season as a midseason arrival.

"My biggest goal this year is to get on base as much as I can," Lee said before a preseason game against the SK Wyverns on Sunday. "I want to get on and create scoring opportunities for the guys behind me."

Lee was also specific about his statistical goal -- topping .400 in on-base percentage (OBP).

Last year, he finished the season at .395, easily tops among all rookies. In this offense-happy league, though, 13 players had an OBP of over .400, and Lee ranked 15th overall.

"I wanted to have an OBP of .400 or higher, but I slipped toward the end of the season," Lee said. "Since I will be batting leadoff, I really want to reach that plateau this year. I want to see a lot of pitches and get on base for my teammates."

His second spring, though, has been vastly different from his first. In 2017, Lee led all players in preseason with a .455 batting average and won the regular gig with the Heroes. This year, he's only batting .143 (2 for 14) with no extra-base hits, with the start of the season scheduled for Saturday.

Maybe he's still feeling the effects of an offseason injury. He broke his right ring finger while lifting weights in December and missed the Heroes' spring training in Arizona last month.

But the youngster said he isn't too concerned about his lackluster preseason because he is in a much different situation than a year ago.

"Obviously, I still have to prove myself, but I am still recovering from an injury," Lee said. "I am not worried just because I am not hitting well in preseason games. I am sticking to my routines."

In this file photo taken on Sept. 17, 2017, Nexen Heroes' outfielder Lee Jung-hoo gets a base hit against the NC Dinos in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

He was already hitting the weights in December because he wanted to get bigger and start hitting with more power in the new season. He was listed at 185 centimeters and 78 kilograms last year, and though still wiry, Lee said he now weighs 82 kg thanks to added muscle mass.

"Though I got hurt, I put in all the work I planned to," he said. "Older guys tell me I'll keep growing because I am still young."

Lee's father never did win that top rookie honor, but he had a spectacular sophomore season in 1994. In addition to leading the KBO in batting average and steals, the senior Lee was also tops in runs scored (113) and hits (196) and ranked fourth in home runs (19), fifth in RBIs (76) and third in doubles (27).

His teenage son said he would like nothing better than to avoid a sophomore slump.

"It was really tough mentally to go through the rehab alone," Lee Jung-hoo said. "I can't wait for the season to start."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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